As Alistair Darling was delivering the Budget, this Alastair was speaking at the opening of a new MIND resource centre in Hertford. Fair to say I had the easier job.
The date for the MIND event was set before the date of the Budget, and I was trying to think of the last time I didn’t follow a Budget live. I was probably a student.
I will catch up on events, and there will be lots of time to debate the Budget, and lots of things to say in future blogs, but in the meantime I wanted to quote something one of the other speakers in Hertford said.
Henck van Bilsen is a consultant cognitive behaviour therapist who also leads a degree programme in CBT at the University of Hertfordshire. Dutch by birth, he is a big, burly man with a big smile and infectious enthusiasm, and a Johnny Halliday song as his mobile phone ringtone.
And he spoke of a ‘revolution’ taking place in mental health services in Britain. He said the government had taken a conscious decision – he called it historic – to invest in improved access for mental therapies. As a result, he said, without having to go through a GP, it would be possible for people to go straight to a new regional centre for psychological therapies, and hopefully get help.
It is the kind of thing which you never hear about on the TV, rarely read about in the papers, but it matters to a lot of people. And it was refreshing to hear someone being so passionate about a choice a government had made, and talking so eloquently about the benefits that would bring.
He said sometimes we talk of good mental health as though it is an automatic, that we all have a right to happiness and contentment and it should never be challenged. But just as you have to look after your teeth, he said, so you need to look after your mind.
And just as the body goes wrong, so does the mind. I made much the same point. One in four of us will have direct experience of mental illness, as I have. Yet still people find it hard to talk about it. When you see someone with a broken leg, you know how to react. When you hear someone has cancer, no matter how close they may be, no matter how scared you or they may be, we all understand the kind of things we need to say and do. But despite improvements, mental illness remains in many ways the last taboo, which in turn leads to discrimination and isolation, with many mentally ill people saying those feelings of discrimination and isolation are worse than the illness they suffer.
Someone at the meeting asked me how long I thought it would take for attitudes to change. I feel they are changing, and possibly faster than we know. I talked of the fight against racism in football. I read an interview at the weekend with a footballer who was Chelsea’s first black player and who used to take vile abuse – from his own team’s supporters – and who admitted some of his team-mates could not see what the problem was. Today, a mix of legislative, cultural and campaigning change means whereas before nobody dared challenge the racists, now nobody dares expose their racism in the first place.
I mentioned the film about gay rights campaigner Harvey Milk – a film brilliant for the way it captured the nature of the ups and downs of campaigning – and the fact that only a few years ago, you could not have imagined a Tory leader feeling he had to support Labour legislation on same sex civil partnerships. Exactly how and when the changes in attitudes came is impossible to pinpoint. But the change came.
Or take something like smoking – if you’d have said to me ten years ago that today there would be near universal acceptance that nobody should smoke in buses, trains, planes, offices – let alone pubs and restaurants – I would have dismissed it as woefully out of touch. But it happened. Change happens.
It may be optimism generated by meeting Henck van Bilsen, but I kind of feel we are getting somewhere in the campaign for greater understanding of mental ill health. I hope so.
And the relevance of the Budget could not be clearer. Henck was not being party political, and I have no idea what his politics are. But he rightly made the point that this new approach to the treatment of mental health problems was a government making a choice to invest in that particular aspect of health care.
As if we didn’t know already, we certainly know now that there are going to be some very difficult choices in public spending in the coming years. As Tony Blair used to say ‘nobody ever came into my room without a cause, and nine times out of ten, it was a cause that they thought could only be addressed by us agreeing to give them more money.’
The competition for resources will become fiercer. The commitment to finding the resources will have to be strong. But I for one am confident a Labour government will always have its heart in the right place when it comes to the NHS, has made some good decisions on mental health in the past, and will maintain that commitment in the future.